Saffron is the most expensive spice on earth. It is extracted not from the seeds, barks, leaves or fruits but from the flowers itself. We've shared with you before that, obtaining 0.45 kg of dry saffron requires harvesting of 50,000 flowers, the equivalent of football pitch in area. And these flowers are among the most beautiful flowers you would ever see. At the peak of the season, the blossoms of saffron cover large swathes of lands with a purple layer. This is a sight as surreal as it can be and of course this is a spice just as exotic. Apart from cooking, ancient sources even mention it as an aphrodisiac. Fittingly, it also has many eclectic stories associated with it.
Image credit: Dr PS Sahana
The story of saffron is actually a very old one. The earliest traces of wild saffron have been found in Greece but it is not clear who domesticated it first. The word saffron has been derived from persona and so it is believed that the spice also originated there and spread elsewhere. Persian and Assyrian sources are the earliest ones to mention the use of saffron in cooking. Modern day Persia i.e. Iran is still among the major producers of premium quality saffron. It has also spread across Europe, mainly across the Mediterranean and the Spanish saffron is considered to be of comparable quality. But today, we want to talk about what we have back home in India. Yes, we are talking about Kashmiri saffron!
Kashmiri saffron is among the most sought after in the world. The beauty and flavour of Kashmiri saffron is such that it has many legends and myths associated with it. According to one of the stories saffron first came to Kashmir sometime in the eight century when a serpent god gifted it to physician who cured his affliction. Another story believes that it was brough by to wandering Sufi saints Khawja Masood Wali and Sheikh Sharifuddin Wali in the 12th century. This is disputed by some who claim that Kashmiris were growing Saffron from much earlier times as per some older Hindu documentations of early ages. In the middle ages, we have the classic, star-crossed Kashmiri love story of poetess and ascetic Zooni who met the future King of Kashmir Yusuf Shah on a blooming saffron field during a moonlit night. She assumed the name Habba Khatoon post marriage but the romance was cut short as the king was defeated and exiled by the Mughals.
The main saffron producing area in Kashmir is spread around the town of Pampore. It is a historic town by the side of the river Jhelum. While the cultivation has spread across other locations, it still remains the hub of saffron trade. Especially during late autumn in October, all the fields surrounding the town get covered with purple blossoms and thousands of villagers get involved in plucking flowers and extracting the spice. There was a time when everyone in this area only dealt in saffron. Now they are opening up to other opportunities but still Pampore’s economy is manly driven by saffron.
Image credit: Flickr
Apart from being used in cooking, saffron also has many health benefits. Safranal, a volatile oil extracted from has a slowing effect on cancer cells and it also works as anticonvulsant as well as antidepressant. A carotenoid called alfa-crocin also has a similar impact. It is also full of minerals such as potassium, manganese, iron, calcium, selenium, copper zinc and magnesium. It is also rich in vitamin A and C, folic acid, niacin and riboflavin.
Over many centuries, Kashmiri saffron has been able to maintain a mystical aura around it which is a combination of its unique flavour and the sheer beauty of its settings. However, of late, it has been facing a lot of challenges. Production has dwindled due to climate change and pollution while newer competitors have emerged in the global market. I sure hope we are able to keep this legacy alive!
It's easy for you to procure Kashmiri saffron online via Pure Mart here.